Revolting Developments

The mood in Fremont.

Back in the day, before people said things like “back in the day,” John Lennon sang a song about revolutions and how “we all want to save the world.” At the time, quite a few of us thought it might really happen. But then Lennon was murdered on his own doorstep by a lunatic, and though a lot has changed since then, the worldwide problems of economic disparity, environmental degradation and escalating violence have continued to grow worse.

At this moment throngs of angry people are massing on the streets in New York, Seattle, and across Europe to demand change.

Will it happen as a result of these demonstrations? Or will the corporate giants whose behind-the-scenes control mechanisms dictate how news is spun, how elections turn, and who profits from the suffering of the powerless win again?

Aging flower child that I am, I’d like to believe that this time, at this particular moment in history, things will be different. And if this turns out to be the case I believe it will be almost entirely due to the global shift in the way communication takes place. But I could be wrong again. Here in Seattle it’s easy to fall into the assumption that everyone in the world is connected to the internet, that everyone is literate and rational and conscientious. It’s easy to overlook the vast gulf between the connected and the disconnected, whose sources of information remain as choked as their sources for material income.

Last week, for example, I heard a first-person account by an American citizen who had been imprisoned in a Chinese holding cell for months while awaiting sentencing for a minor public disturbance. His descriptions of the conditions in the cell were appalling, but even more disturbing to me was his discovery of the disbelief shared by all of his Asian cellmates who completely rejected the idea that the U.S. had ever put a man on the moon. They all considered this a blatant falsehood propagated by the U.S.

When lies replace truth in the common understanding, great injustices grow powerful.

Perhaps in the U.S. we have placed too much trust in our capitalist system, expecting it to be self-correcting. It’s natural to distrust big government, but an economic system without strong government oversight runs the risk of capsizing from the greed of a few unprincipled individuals.

Another headline grabbing image in the papers this week ran alongside the scenes of crowds in the streets: a giant freighter, its load of containers a-tilt in a rough sea.

As such accidents grow more common, we become numb to the damage. But the long-term costs of ignoring our common problems could sink us all.

A Girl With Waves in Her Hair

Berkeley artist Deborah Harris created the cover image for my new book.

You can’t stay dry for long in Seattle.

Even if you somehow manage to avoid the persistent drizzle of fall, winter and spring, and step out into the flawless sunshine of late July, thinking you’ve got a clear shot, you will fall under the spell of the sparkling lakes and rivers, the magnificent Puget Sound, and the vast Pacific beyond the Olympic Mountains. There’s no escape. Even if you never get in a boat or paddle a board, you’ll find yourself entranced by the magical water that nurtures Seattle.

It’s a wet world full of wonders, and it’s home to the heroine of my new book, The Goddess of Green Lake.

The goddess of the title isn’t an actual deity of mythic lore. She has no special powers that she knows of, beyond the ability to mesmerize every male who catches sight of her. But Callie Linden, a 20-year-old marine biology student at the University of Washington, has little interest in boys. Her passion is the sea, protecting it from the worst excesses of modern culture – pollution, over-fishing, and rising sea temperatures caused by global warming. Callie is determined to be a part of the solution.

But, as so often happens in real life, things happen that take you off course, and before you know it you’re careening past boulders in the churning rapids, holding on for dear life. For Callie, the first small step off her carefully charted course begins with the discovery of an orphaned baby sea otter.

When I moved to Seattle six years ago one of the first places I visited was the Seattle Aquarium, a treasure chest of delights. But the most unexpected delight of them all for me was the discovery of the sea otters. I fell in love. And right then the idea for a book began in my head, though it was a few years before I had all the pieces put together. The aquarium in my book is fictional, but I’m indebted to the Seattle Aquarium for introducing me to the magical charms of sea otters.

The baby sea otter in my story captivates another character as well. Eel MacGregor, a struggling musician who first appeared in Alice and The Green Man, has moved to Seattle, for all the usual reasons young musicians do. But he’s not finding it so easy to stand out in the glutted local music scene.

Well, you can probably guess where this is going. But it might surprise you.

When you mix otters, music and magic with a little bit of Seattle mist, anything can happen. You can read all about it in The Goddess of Green Lake.

Seeing Green

The original woodblock by Deborah Harris of Fergus the Green Man.

For those of us who enjoy spending a large portion of our lives reading fiction, the borderline between the world of the imagination and the so-called real world is sketched in erasable ink. We whose literary passports bear the stamps of dozens of favorite authors have no trouble packing our willingness to suspend disbelief. We welcome the chance to plunge into whole new worlds, to escape from our own daily anxieties while we visit inside the heads of other characters.

But when I first began to publish my writings I learned that all readers see things through the lens of their own imaginations, and what seems clear in my own head leads some readers only as far as a state of confusion. The first time this happened I was working at a newspaper in the small Virginia town where I lived, and I had written a column about my difficulty accepting the fact that one of the first things my oldest daughter did after she went off to college was to shave half her head.

I was upset by this. She has beautiful, thick, chestnut hair, and I felt the new look didn’t accentuate her best qualities. I wanted to be a supportive, easy-going, liberal mom, and I tried to go along with it. But I couldn’t mask the dismay in my eyes, and my daughter noticed. Words were said. For a time, there was a new awkwardness in our relationship.

The column I wrote about it made light of my maternal distress, the wacky things kids do, all those typical reference points that bind together those of us who raise children. A lot of regular readers responded to the column and seemed amused by it. But after reading that my daughter had shaved half her head, one woman who worked in my office took me aside and offered her sympathies and asked in a quiet undertone, “Which side?”

I had to stop and think. I had no idea. Did it matter? Apparently, this woman had been attempting to visualize my daughter’s new look and had been stymied right out of the gate by this all-important detail.

I’ll be honest. I still couldn’t tell you which side had hair and which didn’t. It wasn’t the hair that bothered me. It was the bare skull.

That was the first time I came face to face with the reality that no matter how well a writer sees his characters and their world in his own mind, unless readers can enter into it, they aren’t going to be able to care much about what happens there.

When I was first trying to get an agent or editor to take a chance on Alice and the Green Man, the rejections I got tended to be all the same. They all liked the idea, they thought it was original, they enjoyed my writing, but they balked at the basic concept of a woman fighting for a garden. That notion didn’t grab them. Not enough blockbuster potential. I was told by several agents that the market was hot for hotter stories – more sex, more violence, more dark creepiness. Well, for a thousand reasons I won’t go into, I am so not going to write that kind of stuff. It’s not what I want to read.

Eventually, on the advice of a successful published author I met by chance while waiting for a train, I entered Alice and The Green Man in a bunch of Romance Writers’ contests. Generally they request the first three chapters, and the preliminary judging is done by other aspiring romance writers, some of whom have been published. I got a lot of interesting feedback from those contests, and scored well in several, though none led to a contract. But one curious aspect of the comments made me question whether I should continue trying to pass myself off as a romance writer.

I am, of course, a romantic. I long for a world in which happy endings are the norm. That’s why I write fiction. But many of the women who judged these contests seemed troubled by their inability to see the world of my imagination. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Some of them seemed to enjoy their visit to my garden. Others thought there was entirely too much floral description and not nearly enough bodily contact.

And there we come to the green heart of the matter. From the first moment he came into my mind, Fergus, the Green Man, was a vivid, sexy, intelligent, fascinating man who cared about plants. Wow! My dream man. But not, it seems, quite so enthralling to a lot of the women who read my contest entries. On one point in particular they were united. They wanted to know the exact shade of green he was. And was it just his thumb? Or, umm, all parts of him?

Well, of course, I thought I had spelled this out in the text – that his skin was a delicious olive tone, that it seemed to get greener after he sat in the sun for a while, that the leaves and vines were drawn to him by his aura of fertility. As is Alice. ‘Nuff said.

But not, apparently, for the judges. In the margins of my entries they wrote their concerns. They seemed to see my Green Man as some sort of amalgam of the Hulk, the Jolly Green Giant and Shrek.

Not even close to my vision.

The idea to take the ancient archetype of the Green Man, a figure so shrouded in mystery that no one knows who first produced an image of a man with leaves sprouting out of his head, and make him a hero in a modern setting appealed to me on many levels. While many of the early depictions of the Green Man carved in stone on medieval cathedrals in Europe show a monstrous untameable creature, these illustrations grew out of the earliest struggles of humankind, when nature itself was a thing to be feared, conquered and placated. Now, as modern civilization has reached the brink of nearly destroying the tree of nature on which our very existence depends, society has a different view of nature as something to be cherished, and a new passion for connecting with the natural world. In my interpretation of the mythic Green Man, I simply took this new passion to its logical extreme.

So, when in the course of time I finally decided to self-publish the book because I was, and still am, hopelessly in love with my Green Man and want to share him with anyone who might appreciate his charms, one of the most important parts of the process for me was making sure that the cover image gave readers an evocative suggestion of how to ‘see’ my Green Man.

Luckily, my artist friend Deborah Harris has been a longtime supporter of my work, and when I asked her if she would be willing to create a portrait of Fergus, she embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Deborah is a marvelous painter, but I wanted a woodcut, because for years I have admired her floral woodcut designs, and I felt sure that she could create an image that would straddle the border between the imaginary and the ordinary.

At first we had some discussions about what Fergus looked like. She sent me a few trial sketches that had elements I wanted – the twining leaves, the sensual eyes. But the cheeks were too cherubic, too innocent. I wrote her back and told her to take a look at some photos of the character of Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the time, I was at the height of my obsession with that show, when it was in its witty, genre-breaking prime. A few weeks later Deborah sent me an image and asked, “Will this do?”

“Yes,” I said, “yes, it will, yes.”

Since then, of course, the book has not exactly blazed a trail through the publishing world. But it has been read and enjoyed by a few people, and this brings me great satisfaction. I know I don’t personally have the strength or courage or vision to save the natural world from the forces of destruction bearing down upon it. But if enough men and women unite in not only seeing, but being green, maybe there’s hope for us all.

‘Tis Autumn

The Blue Ridge mountains make music of their own.

There is a Blue Ridge of the mind, where the shadows beckon, full of secrets and music, especially when autumn comes clad in russet and gold.

It’s a place where people mind their own business, but still look out for one another. Where sharing comes naturally and harmony breeds in the red clay.

This is the world of Duggie Moon, affable slacker entrepreneur, former Latin scholar, and music lover. Duggie gets along with most people, but every now and then even a peaceable stoner like Douglas C. Moon finds himself in a tight spot, because not everyone on the planet is pure of heart.

This year, as another breathtakingly beautiful autumn burnishes the Blue Ridge, Duggie has embarked on a new scheme to get rich, or at least solvent, by managing one of the local up and coming rock bands. Duggie is counting on their success to impress Jenny Carson, the love of his life, who is considering a move to Paris, France.

But the chemistry of rock and roll, as everyone knows, is one part talent to nine parts crazy,  and Duggie’s best-laid plans may blow up in his face. It would be enough to make a lesser man turn to drink. But that’s not the Moon way.

Will Duggie succeed in leading his rock and roll band to  acclaim before they turn on each other and burn out like a sun going nova?

Find out in Moon’s Blues.

Sword Play

The face that launched a thousand pirate quips.

Seattle loves pirates. Don’t we all?

Not, of course, the real, bloodthirsty, unwashed, yellow-toothed criminals who robbed and raped their way around the high seas back in the day. No, the pirates we love are the cute and cuddly comedians whose sense of fashion is matched only by their quick way with a quip.

It wasn’t always thus. Those of us who grew up watching the great Robert Newton as Long John Silver, with his squinty eye and peg leg, snarling at young Jim Hawkins in the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island, had an entirely different impression of pirates. Charm didn’t enter into it.

But all that changed in 2003 when Johnny Depp minced across the deck of the Black Pearl in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Pirates have been in vogue ever since.

Seattle was way ahead of this trend. The city’s love affair with pirates dates from 1949, when the first Seafair Pirates, an all-volunteer group of hearty swabs, splashed ashore during the city’s annual summer celebration of all things seaworthy. The Seafair Pirates have been around here long enough to have become a beloved institution. You have to apply to become one, and they don’t take just anyone, though one assumes that if Johnny Depp wanted to prance in, no questions would be asked. After all, Captain Jack Sparrow  won the heart of many a discerning film critic. It’s hard not to love a guy who can make fun of himself while wearing eyeliner and wielding a cutlass. And don’t forget those boots. As if.

In Seattle pirate chic never goes out of style, but there’s no doubt that one of the highlights of the piratical calendar is today, September 19th, better known as Talk Like A Pirate Day. This fabulous idea began spreading like a YouTube hit before YouTube existed, thanks in part to a hilarious Dave Barry column which ran in the Miami Herald in 2002 and kicked off the concept, a brainchild of two very funny guys, Mark Summers, aka Cap’n Slappy, and John Baur, aka Ol’ Chumbucket.

Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket have since penned several books designed to help pirate wannabes set sail with style. Their first how-to book, Pirattitude, with an introduction by Dave Barry, is a must-have for those wishing to make a pirate statement. A more recent release, The Pirate Life: Unleashing Your Inner Buccaneer, could change your life. Or at least keep the neighbors guessing where you’ve buried the treasure.

A Sunday Afternoon at Lac Vert

Summer lingers at Green Lake.
Summer arrives late at Green Lake.

If Georges Seurat had lived in Seattle, he would have been drawn to Green Lake, compelled to paint its shifting scenes of people, water, shadowed lawns and fluttering tree canopy.

Of course, in 1884, at the time Seurat was painting his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in Paris, Green Lake hadn’t really come into its own as a playground for Seattle urbanites. For those wishing to visit the park at that time, a trolley extending from the city provided an easy option. These days the trolley is gone, but nothing stops the crowds from flowing into the inviting lakeside spaces, especially when the sun shines.

This past September week summer finally visited Seattle. Nine days in a row of temperatures in the 80s. We dug out our fan and plugged it in.

Good times.

But if Seurat were to visit Green Lake now I suspect he might be a bit taken aback by the changes in fashion and social conventions since his time. Hardly anyone uses parasols anymore. Skateboarders and inline skaters whiz past the strollers on the path around the lake. And Georges might be dumbfounded by the constant stream of joggers sprinting by. The mood is tranquil, but hardly sedate.

Yet sometimes, when the light is right, if you squint your eyes and stare at the lakeside scene, you can still get a glimpse of what Seurat saw.

Break Chances

Gimme a break.

I spent too much time watching tennis on TV over the Labor Day weekend.

I always think I’ll be able to just check in on the matches, watch a couple of points, and get on with my life. But when it’s the U.S.Open, or any of the majors, really, I get sucked in. Break points, set points, match points – in a good match the drama keeps ratcheting up, like in a no-hitter between two gritty baseball teams when everything comes down to that last inning.

Anyway. To try to justify this obsession I tell myself that it’s instructional viewing. You get to see what to do (Roger Federer any time) and what not (Svetlana Kuznetsova – the mistress of self-destruct). But, as much as physical stamina and shot making determine the outcome of most tennis matches, the greatest challenge for all athletes is actually mental.

It’s so hard to stay focused, positive and calm while in the tumult  of the battle. When I see Kuznetsova mishit easy overheads, or over hit easy volleys, I feel her pain. Been there, done that.

This is part of the pleasure of watching the pros, the recognition of their vulnerability. We can identify with their weaknesses. And on the other hand, it’s inspiring to watch some of them execute shots far beyond the abilities of most of us.

Every sport has a dynamic of its own, a constantly changing combination of challenges and opportunities which provide players with chances to win or lose. In the game of tennis, break chances can be the ticket to triumph, but only for those brave enough, skilled enough, and strong enough to make the most of their chances.

It’s a lot like life. We all get some chances to push forward, leap over the obstacles in our paths, climb higher, live larger. Sometimes we make it, sometimes we don’t. Some players fall apart when they miss a break chance. But the best players dig in, dig deep, and stay alert. Because you never know when that next chance will come along. And you don’t want to miss it.

Wired Wit

Shadows enrich the subtext of Little's wire art.

What a week.

The apocalypse dreamers must be riding higher than the floodwaters left by Hurricane Irene. It’s not often that a week begins with an unprecedented 5.9 earthquake in our nation’s capitol and finishes up with a hurricane bigger than Texas slamming into the Big Apple.
From the chatter of the talk shows, a conspiracy of sci-fi proportions might be presumed to be at work.

And yet. Somehow, as the floodwaters recede, the aftershocks diminish and the Dow-Jones resumes its customary pogo bouncing of alternate anticipation and dread, life, as we know it, goes on. The famine in Africa worsens. The violence fueled by differences of political and religious views lurches on with the tireless zest of a zombie horde. Racial prejudice continues. The drug wars rage on.

In light of all this, the passing blows of a hurricane and a small earthquake hardly register.

We experience life as individuals. When something cataclysmic happens to you, it’s hard to step outside the frame and look at the big picture.
One of the functions of art is to help us do just that – to broaden our limited perspectives and get a glimpse of other points of view.

Some artists write novels to address these ideas. But reading, for many, is too time consuming, too much like work. Music has long been a wedge to crack open the doors of perception. But listening requires an open mind. Visual art has an advantage of immediacy. And sometimes, the longer you look, the more you can see in a work of art.

Seattle artist Spenser Little creates provocative works from twisted wire that explore fundamental issues of human existence. In spare imagery that brings to mind the great line drawings of Saul Steinberg or Toulouse-Lautrec, Little creates extraordinary images of men, women and words. Many of his works include pithy quotations from the likes of Oscar Wilde or Ambrose Bierce. An original inventive spirit animates all of his works, from the smallest dog sculpture to the stunning near-life-size portraits.

You can see his works most Sundays at the Fremont outdoor fair. Weather permitting.

Hellstrip Redemption

A little touch of heaven borders the sidewalk in Ravenna.

What’s brown, fried, and crackles when you step on it?

If you answered the grass next to the sidewalk, then you might be the not-so-proud possessor of a hellstrip. That arid strip of exposed soil between the sidewalk and the street can be a living hell for tender plants. The parched patch in front of my house is never a thing a beauty, but right about now, after baking through another August drought, the so-called grass looks about as inviting as a cactus bed.

Sedum, ornamental grasses and sun-loving perennials give a full look to this sidewalk border.

From time to time I have considered taking on the challenge. I’ve sketched plans, gotten books from the library, seen some thrilling ideas on the blogosphere, but my energy flags whenever I try to do battle with the entrenched hordes of dandelions. I haven’t totally abandoned the idea, though. Here, in a city known for its vibrant gardening community, it comes as no surprise that many thrive on the challenge of tough terrain.

Lavender basks in the heat of the hellstrip.

The City of Seattle encourages people to get creative  on their strips (although they prefer that you get permission and advice about what sort of trees to plant, and access to city utilities, power lines, trash pickup, etc. all factor into the equation). You can even pave over your hellstrip if that’s your idea of a good time.

A sidewalk sunflower display adds perspective to a mini.

If I ever get up the energy and vision to follow through with my ideas, I’d be inclined to follow the example of some of my neighbors. Or the fine gardeners in Buffalo.

That’s right. Buffalo. New York. The place we usually associate with three feet of snow or more, kind of the way people associate Seattle with endless rain. Yet, although the rain here is more or less constant for nine months, there’s never a whole lot of it. Washington, D.C., gets more rain annually than Seattle. And judging by the photos of the “hellstrips” in Buffalo as posted by Art of Gardening, in spite of their brutal winters, the lucky gardeners in that northern city enjoy a lush and verdant summer, the likes of which Seattle rarely sees.

Just goes to show, I guess. One man’s hellstrip is another man’s horticultural bonanza. I’m rethinking Buffalo, that’s for sure.

Once More Into the Beach

Sunset is a drug at The Beach.

What can explain the curious alchemy of sun, surf and sand?

Experienced separately, these ordinary ingredients seldom inspire flights of fantasy or romance. Yet put them all together and you have The Beach, a state of mind as much as a place, where humans gather in hopes of getting whatever it is they think they want. Oftentimes they get something rather different than what they’d planned, and yet,  thanks to the mysterious power of The Beach, many people who arrive loaded with lists, expectations and coolers full of alcohol, depart some days later  without any of those things but feeling strangely restored nonetheless.

Our little band of sixteen extended family members spent last week sharing a large house on the Gulf Coast of southern Florida, and, in the first day or so, I had doubts about whether or not the event would prove as relaxing as I’d hoped. For me a vacation represents a chance to ignore the grim and sobering facts that loom so large on the daily menu. At The Beach it’s as if there were a quiet hum of optimism beneath the whispering waves, and, for a limited time, it’s possible to imagine a world where people of all kinds get along in harmony, sharing the Earth’s bounty.

Of course the world is full of real problems and serious issues and not everyone is as adept at ignoring them as I.  Thus, in the first day or two of our stay  the conversations tended to linger on contentious topics such as politics, the economy, and the scheduling of various personal agendas. I elected to sit out these debates, filling in the idle hours with long walks on the beach, broken up by hours of staring mindlessly at the water. My seemingly endless capacity for staring into space comes in handy at The Beach.

Space: the final frontier

And eventually, even the most driven and focused among our little group ran out of gas and sauntered down to the sand, where the treatment is most effective. This is perfectly normal. We are all of us, in these hyper-active, over-connected, tech-happy times, too wired to shut ourselves off. Even on the beach these days the number of people staring at their iPhones and plugged into their iPods testifies to the addictive power of connectivity. But really? If E.M. Forster  were writing now he wouldn’t be urging “Only connect!” but rather the opposite.

And I know it’s hard at first. You think you might miss something. Or somebody. Or, if you’re really lucky, somebody might miss you. But, more likely, the world will get along without you for a week, and even that special someone might survive, and possibly be even gladder to see the new serene you, all smoothed out and centered after a week of communing with The Beach.

Of course, if it rains during your beach week, things can get a little tense. There’s nothing quite like being stuck in a house with a large group of people of widely different ages and tastes with nothing but a television and a deck of cards to see you through. Yet, it’s trials like these that bring out the best in some. You know who you are. Fortunate the family that has a few members who can tell stories, invent amusing activities, and tell jokes without screwing up the punch lines. The important thing is not to give in to despair when the sun disappears for a day or two. You have to trust that it will come back. And keep the cooler stocked.

And after a couple of days you begin to realize that all those plans, those agendas, those serious conversation topics, well, really, they’re a lot like work. And that’s what we came here to get away from, right?  It just takes a few days to get into The Beach rhythm: get up, eat, go the beach, drink, repeat.

For chronic worriers, planners, schemers, etc., the challenge of The Beach is to Not. This becomes easier in a place where the temperature at 7 a.m. is 85 degrees, with steam. There’s no percentage in getting worked up in that kind of situation, when mere talking can be too much effort. We find ourselves slipping into an easy reliance on the catch-phrases of the current generation, a mindless shorthand that can cover any conversational gap.

Example: “Do you want to go shopping for dinner?” “Not so much.”

“The kids want to rent kayaks and paddle over to the causeway.” “Just go with it.”

“Is this beer yours?” “It is what it is.”

“Can I get you anything?” “Sex on the beach.” (By this time the kids are out on the kayaks so it’s all good, another all purpose bit of empty verbiage.)

Ah yes. The Beach. We came here for a reason. We can’t remember what it was. But it’s all good.

Segways by The Beach: That's how we roll.